In the past three years, the Wolves haven’t had many opportunities to win basketball games of any kind. Thrilling endings and clutch buzzer-beaters have mostly been some enviable luxury, like when the rich kids at school used to show off their Girbauds and Valterra skateboards. My memory of potential game-winning shots includes: Randy Foye getting a three blocked by Dwyane Wade; lots of hurried, un-lovely, poorly executed plays; Damian Wilkins’ blind luck.
In any case, it’s been a really long time since we’ve seen any T-Wolf with the ability to do what Michael Beasley did in the Timberwolves’ Wednesday night 113-111 win against the Clippers. There he was, with the game tied and time running down, isolated against Ryan Gomes at the top of the key. He took two hard dribbles to his right, pulled up at the elbow, elevated over the double-team and hit the game winner. For the past week at least, and for the first time in years, the Wolves have had somebody who can salvage a bucket when the offense fails to produce an open look (which is often), who can create for himself when the wheels fall off the machine, who actually can hit a game-winner over a double-team. Its a strange feeling.
And it’s a good thing, too, because the Wolves went to extraordinary lengths to lose this game. Their previous seven possessions had been a carnival of horrors: hurried execution, careless passes, poorly chosen jumpers, missed layups. Only Corey Brewer’s utterly ridiculous flailing bank-shot to tie the game at 111 with 1:14 remaining salvaged this hideous stretch of play. The shot was vintage Brewer in that it was almost more troubling than heartening. It had no conceivable reason to go in the basket; it was a sign of an offense entirely out-of-sync.
Making matters (much) worse was the Wolves’ defense. This was their third straight game with a defensive efficiency of significantly worse than 110 points per 100 possessions. (To put this in perspective, the Kings, the NBA’s current worst defensive team allow, 110.3 pts/100. The Wolves are currently sitting in 26th place–did you not just feel a certain swell of pride?) Kurt Rambis put things succinctly: “Our guys just couldn’t find a way to get the defensive job done tonight…They couldn’t defend the post the way that we wanted them to, pick and rolls the way we wanted them to…” He trailed off.
Perhaps he was thinking of the sequence toward the end of the first half, in which Eric Gordon managed to drive his way to the basket on four straight possessions. On two of those occasions Wes Johnson, Gordon’s primary defender was sitting on Gordon’s right hand, forcing the young Clip to drive left into the help defense. Gordon obliged and although the Wolves’ defense knew exactly where he would be going, they were still unable to rotate quickly enough to stop him. On the last of these possessions, a side pick-and-roll, Wayne Ellington was unable to even force Gordon left, into the teeth of the help; Gordon breezed to the rim for an uncontested dunk. The coach was not amused.
Or maybe Rambis was thinking of the moment in the third quarter when the Wolves made two perfect rotations to stymie a Clippers offensive set for almost the entire duration of the shot clock. It was only when Johnson failed to shoot out from his help position underneath the basket to close out on Rasual Butler waiting in the corner, the only open Clipper on the court, that LA nailed an open three. As Kevin Arnovitz can tell you, it’s often the second and third sets of rotations that separate the good defenses from the not-so-good ones. As possessions wear on, and their opponent continues to move the ball, causing the defense to move and make decisions, it becomes nearly certain that one of the five Wolves on the floor will make a mistake.
Or perhaps it was the two times–one at the end of the first quarter the other at the final buzzer with the Wolves up by two–that Beasley carelessly meandered away from Butler in the corner. In neither instance did Beasley’s wanderings put him in a position to offer meaningful help to a teammate. And in both cases Butler was afforded a clear look at the basket, the final one with a chance to win the game. “We’re a long ways away,” sighed Rambis, “we’re a long ways away.”
So they are. But it’s something of a blessing that on this path to defensive competence they get to encounter teams like the Clippers, a squad even more vexed with injuries and inexperience, and even more skilled at the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory than the Wolves themselves. The Pups were lucky on many fronts. They were lucky that because of Baron Davis’ injury, Eric Bledsoe, Willie Warren and Eric Gordon were pressed into service at point guard.
The Wolves found Gordon almost impossible to guard (see above). Like some hybrid of Dwyane Wade and Paul Pierce, Gordon is a shifty ballhandler and vicious shotmaker, already skilled at finding oblique angles of attack, already possessing that spectral calm common to veteran scorers. But he’s not a point guard. He and Bledsoe were both repeatedly caught in moments of indecision and turned the ball over nine times between them.
The Wolves were lucky also that Blake Griffin is not a year or two older. The rookie must be the most bloodthirsty assaulter of the rim since Amar’e was a teen. Add to this his quickness and leaping ability, overwhelming physical strength and an unmatched frenzy in his pursuit of the ball and you’ve got yourself a nightmare matchup both for Kevin Love and the genteel Darko. But Griffin has not yet developed a real outside game; and his attacks on the rim are fairly unidirectional and therefore slightly predictable. And so as the game wore on, the Wolves were able to time their help defense to meet him at the rim. This will not be the case for long, I bet.